Please name the U.S. presidential candidate who
made the following point during the 2000 race for the White House: "I think
that one of the problems that we have faced in the world is that we are so much
more powerful than any single nation has been in relationship to the rest of
the world than at any time in history, that I know about anyway, that there
is some resentment of U.S. power. So I think that the idea of humility is an
Yep, that was Texas governor George W Bush commenting on the U.S. approach
to global affairs during a televised debate on Oct. 11, 2000, with Democratic
presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore, who was promoting a more activist
role for the United States around the world, including sending American troops
to engage in nation-building operations in Haiti.
"You mentioned Haiti," Bush responded. "I wouldn't have sent
troops to Haiti. I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building
mission. And it was not very successful. It cost us a couple billions of dollars,
and I'm not sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before."
(Admit it: Don't you now feel this urge to replace "Haiti" with "Iraq"?)
And please read carefully the wise, Realpolitik-style advice that the same Bush
made in the same televised debate, resisting the appeal by Gore for an energetic
global U.S. interventionist policy of changing regimes and spreading democracy.
"I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world
and say this is the way it's got to be. We can help," Bush declared. "And
maybe it's just our difference in government, the way we view government. I
mean, I want to empower people. I want to help people help themselves, not have
government tell people what to do. I just don't think it's the role of the United
States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you."
To suggest that President George W. Bush has not been practicing what presidential
candidate George W. Bush was preaching once upon a time would be the understatement
of this century.
Indeed, President Bush's grandiose and expansive vision of America's mission
in the world – "support[ing] the growth of democratic movements and institutions
in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our
world" – promoted in his second inaugural address and again in his State
of the Union address this year, would have made even president Woodrow Wilson,
who wanted to make the world "safe for democracy," sound like a flaming
But as more Americans are concluding that President Bush's crusade of nation-building
and democracy-promotion has been failing, candidate Bush's plea for U.S. "humility"
in world affairs is gaining more popularity among policy analysts in Washington,
D.C., and elsewhere.
The latest indication that, as former CIA official Graham Fuller has suggested
in The National Interest magazine, a sense of "superpower fatigue"
has been spreading in the U.S. capital is the "buzz" ignited by a
new book critiquing America's (and the West's) tragic hubris of trying to reshape
the rest of the world in its image.
White Man's Burden: Why
the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
(New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), William Easterly places Bush's appeal for
excessive U.S. (and Western) interventionism in the Rest (the term Easterly
uses to describe the non-Western parts of the world) in a larger policy context.
Easterly, a former economist with the World Bank, where he spent 16 years,
is a self-described "noninterventionist" who is very skeptical of
the notion that The Planner – whether it's a World Bank official or the head
of a U.S. foreign aid agency, a British imperialist (in, say, Iraq) or American
nation-builder (in, say, Iraq) – can impose grand Western political and economic
schemes and various forms of utopian social engineering on the Rest.
Much of Easterly's critique targets the U.S.-led foreign aid industry, which
after 50 years and more than $2.3 trillion in aid spent in Asia, Africa, Latin
America, and other parts of the Rest, has shockingly little to show for it.
This huge amount of foreign aid "had not managed to get 12 cent-medicines
to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths," writes Easterly, who
teaches economics at New York University. Utilizing his field experience with
the World Bank, Easterly demonstrates with both statistics and anecdotes the
failure of foreign aid organizations to fulfill their stated missions of eradicating
poverty and building nations in the Rest.
As he sees it, the fault lies with The Planners who control these gigantic
bureaucracies but lack accountability, incentives for improved performance,
and methods for receiving feedback from the people they are supposed to help.
Easterly would like to see The Planners be replaced by what he calls The Searchers,
that is, social entrepreneurs who are less concerned with inspiring mission
statements and grand designs and who would apply a bottom-up approach in their
dealing with the poor Rest and use innovative solutions as they adjust to the
needs of the people they need to assist.
"All the hoopla about having the right plan is itself a symptom of the
misdirected approach to foreign aid taken by so many in the past and so many
still today," Easterly argues. "The right plan is to have no plan."
Indeed, from Easterly's perspective, the free market, not the centralized government,
provides the most effective solutions to meeting the needs of people in the
West – and in the Rest. But he cautions Americans and Westerners to recognize
that the market requires certain norms and institutions that may not exist in
many parts of the Rest.
Hence policymakers in the White House and the World Bank should recognize that
many regions of the world are not yet ready to operate according to utopian
free-market solutions (witness the disastrous attempt to force "shock therapy"
on the former Soviet Union).
"Markets everywhere emerge in an unplanned, spontaneous way, adapting
to local traditions and circumstances, and not through reforms designed by outsiders,"
"The free market depends on the bottom-up emergence of complex institutions
and social norms that are difficult for outsiders to understand, much less change,"
he concludes. Hence the need for The Searchers to recognize the limits under
which they are operating in the Rest, and in particular the reality in which
ethnic, tribal, and clan loyalties impact on the way individuals make their
political and economic decisions.
Notwithstanding all their good intentions and big ideas, outsiders cannot transplant
Western institutions onto foreign soil and ensure that they take root there.
Instead, the Searchers should learn to accept the reality in the Rest as it
is and not as it should be according to some utopian vision, and try to advance
small, piecemeal solutions that take place at the grassroots levels.
American and Western policymakers should certainly refrain from using their
available resources to subsidize corrupt and bankrupt governments in the Rest
and admit that in many cases, channeling more economic assistance to this or
that regime will only help perpetuate a destructive political and economic status
quo and produce even more misery for most of the people in the country targeted
After all, as Easterly points out in The White Man's Burden, some of
the success in the Rest, like Singapore and Hong Kong, or for that matter China
and India, had little to do with foreign aid and more with the ability of these
economies to marshal their human resources in the most effective way through
workable solutions that reflect their unique experiences.
Taking into consideration the spectacular failures that resulted from foreign
intervention in the Rest, Easterly is astounded that US policymakers and their
cheerleaders in the media and the think tanks are advancing a strategy based
on the use of military power as part of an effort to impose the American solution
in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"Military intervention and occupation show a classic Planner's mentality:
applying a simplistic external answer from the West to a complex internal problem
in the Rest," Easterly writes, as he surveys the history of imperialism,
colonialism, and Cold War intervention in the Rest and warns that the West,
and in particular, Washington, "should learn from its colonial history
when it indulges neo-imperialist fantasies," concluding that "they
didn't work before and they won't work now."
Interestingly enough, two books that were creating some "buzz" in
the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President's Bush role
of the The Planner of nation-building in Iraq was being celebrated, were Niall
The Price of America's Empire and Max Boot's The
Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.
That Easterly's The White Man's Burden, is creating a similar "buzz"
now is a sign that presidential candidate Bush's suggestion that Americans should
play the role of The Searcher, that "I want to help people help themselves,
not have government tell people what to do" and that "I just don't
think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we
do it this way, so should you" are becoming more popular.
Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.